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George on Georgia – The Waterboys

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George on Georgia – The Waterboys

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George Chidi


Just study harder. Work your way up. Start a business if you can. If you’re poor, you can make it. This is America.

The world is just. People get what they deserve. It’s all on you. Life is fair … enough.

Lies! These are lies people tell themselves. These are lies they hope other people believe.

If any of that was true, people born poor would be just as likely to get rich as people who were born rich. We know that’s not true. Stupid, lazy children with rich parents routinely end up better off than smarter, harder working kids born into poverty.

But surely, if you work hard, you’ll still be fine, right?

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Well, I’ve been watching and talking with a bunch of kids who make that lie harder to tell. They sell water at street corners around Atlanta. They’re all still pretty screwed.

But we’re seeing a lot more of them now. And you might be wondering why.

Well, Atlanta has the largest gap between wealth and poverty in the United States, at least by one measurement made by Bloomberg researchers a couple of years ago. And a lot of that gap tracks with race. The average income for a white household in Atlanta is over $80,000 a year. The average income for a black household is under $30,000 a year.

Atlanta also has the lowest income mobility. Born poor here, the chances of making it into the top 20 percent are one in 25. And that has not one thing to do with drive, or hustle, or ambition. Grit has a normal statistical distribution. It’s class and race.

Atlanta’s gini coefficient – the measure of inequality – at .58 ranks with third-world cities like Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro where rich people have to drive in armored cars in between gated communities while the poor duke it out in favelas. Bogota has less inequality.

Let’s get real for a second. You’re not buying water from these kids because you’re thirsty.

This is not a water bottle. This is a communion wafer. You’re buying absolution from the sin of affluence amid poverty. You had distance from real poverty before, you didn’t have to see it, but everything has gone to hell and now you do. And it makes you uncomfortable because you can’t simply dismiss their poverty as a product of sloth or drive or whatever nonsense lets you sleep at night.

They are standing in the middle of the street, trying to work when half of the poor black kids in Atlanta can’t find a job. And it shames you.

The water boys have been all over social media over the last month or two. Some people are terrified of them. Some people are terrified for them. I am concerned mostly … about all of us. Our society, and what this says about us.

Here’s the secret truth hiding in your heart. Their drive, their ambition is normal. They are not extraordinary people. They’re perfectly normal kids, who are poor because this is what poverty in Atlanta has come down to after decades of invisibility.

The mayor formed a commission to recommend ways to get these kids off the corners. That commission gave its answers early August. They figure there are about 300 kids selling water. They recommended creating some formal programs to encourage legal entrepreneurship, to avoid a heavy-handed crackdown, and to listen to them. Which is great.

It’s not going to do much.

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Atlanta alone has about 50,000 school children enrolled in public school and more than half of them live in poverty. Two years ago, about 2,500 were technically homeless. That 2,500 number is going to be higher now.

I had a conversation with a 10th grader who wants to be an engineer and go to Georgia Tech. Only, he has to take care of himself now because he’s the oldest and can’t burden his mother more. That is some Great Depression psychology, but it would have been true for him regardless of all of this.

We’ve locked their parents out of a shot at a decent life, and it breeds disorder. Metro Atlanta has about 4.6 million people and about a million of them are scraping by on less than $20,000 a year in household income. A society with this much poverty is going to keep producing kids doing whatever they think they can to survive. The problem isn’t the waterboys. It’s us.

– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate.

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